A post wherein film writer Kimberly Luperi explores Anna May Wong’s perseverance in the face of racial discrimination.
Wong did not have it easy in Hollywood. Despite her talent and ambition, the first
international Chinese-American star faced racial roadblocks that motivated her
to fight for better minority representation onscreen.
frequented downtown Los Angeles film sets, earning the nickname “curious Chinese
child.” At 17, she landed the lead in the two-color Technicolor feature
THE TOLL OF THE SEA (‘22). Her casting was a triumph in itself, as actresses
like Mary Pickford generally played Asian women in “yellowface.”
Wong’s nuanced, mature performance stunned, but to her chagrin, film producers subsequently
offered her degrading “dragon lady” parts. In her 1933 interview I
Protest, she pondered: “Why
is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain?… We are not like
Wong sailed to Europe, where audiences recognized her talents. When the
esteemed star returned stateside in 1930, not much had changed, and film producers
still paradoxically perceived her as either "too Chinese” or “too
American.” For Wong, the final straw was "one of the
most notorious cases of casting discriminations in the 1930s” – the
Chinese lead role in THE GOOD EARTH ('37) going to German-born Luise Rainer.
reading Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel in 1931, Wong longed for
the role of O-Lan and the mainstream breakthrough it would afford her. Lobbying
on her behalf started in 1933, but still Wong struggled against biases within both Hollywood and the Chinese community. For associate
producer Albert Lewin, Wong “did not fit his conception of what Chinese people looked like.” At the same time, the Chinese government pressed against her
Wong’s hopes of winning the role faded altogether when Paul Muni landed the male lead. At the time, the Production Code forbade actors of different races from engaging in romantic partnerships on screen. These strict miscegenation guidelines held even though Austro-Hungarian-born
Muni had won a role as a Chinese character. Whether film producers offered Wong
the unfavorable supporting part of Lotus is unclear, but she wouldn’t have accepted
anyway, as she told Modern Screen in
1937: ”… You’re
asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the
picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.“
Though disappointed, Wong put the
bigotry behind her, visited China for the first time and returned determined to
enhance the portrayal of Chinese characters by declaring she’d only accept
positive parts. The Chinese-American community welcomed the news, as Chinese-American media often blamed Wong for accepting the
stereotypical roles handed her. A journalist once wrote of Wong, "She has done more than enough to
disgrace the Chinese race.” Wong just couldn’t win.
But she tried. Shot on modest budgets with little risk of financial failure, two Paramount
B-pictures, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI ('37) and KING OF CHINATOWN ('39), offered Wong “progressive and unusual roles.” In DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (’37), Wong plays a
daughter of a man murdered by smugglers. To avenge her father, she goes undercover, helps solve the crime
and exposes the racket.
Wong thought of the role as the best she’d had to date. Then, in KING OF CHINATOWN (’39), Wong plays a
brilliant female surgeon who later brings medical supplies to China to aid the
On the war front, Wong assisted the Sino-Japanese war effort
onscreen in the early 1940s with top billed performances in Poverty Row
pictures BOMBS OVER BURMA (’42), as a teacher, and THE LADY FROM CHUNGKING
(’42), as a guerilla leader in command of a regiment of men. Wong donated
salaries from both films to the China War Relief Fund.
Though Wong never fully overcame the racial hurdles she
faced, she fought unjust discrimination with dignity, resilience and conviction.
February 17, 1917 - British Q-Ship, disguised to look like an unarmed merchant vessel, sinks German U-Boat.
Pictured - HMS Farnborough goes down, but but before taking a German sub down with her.
With all restraints lifted off German submarines, the death toll of those at sea rose dramatically in the month of February 1917. But the Entente had its victories, too. On February 17, a British Q-Ship, designed to look like an unarmed trawler but actually brimming with hidden weapons, lured German submarine U-83 in close off the Southern Irish coast.
The German sub fired a torpedo, and the British captain, Commander Campbell, deliberately let it hit his ship. His well trained crew took to their lifeboats, making a riotous show of disorder to pretend to be civilian crew. While they play-acted, their comrades manned weapons hidden behind flaps and waited for the Germans to come inspect their kill. The sub obliged, sailing up within ten meters of the British crew, when the Royal Navy sailors revealed their disguise and blasted the U-boat with a six-lber gun and several Maxims. The first six-lber shell decapitated the German captain, and the submarine soon sank with only two survivors. Campbell signalled for help, and back on shore duly won the Victoria Cross for his actions and £1000 in prize money to split with his crew.
I woke up and flinched. The cell was so dark, so cold. I
shivered and wrapped my arms around my body.
It had been 3 days since we had been captured, and I was
weak. My withdrawals from the sea were taking its toll on me, and my mind
started to hallucinate. I wiped at the tear tracks on my face, and looked out
the cell bars, my only connection to the outside world. The light rays were
very dim, but it was enough to tell the time gone by.
I was not restrained, and I did not blame them. I didn’t
look strong enough to put up a fight, and quite frankly, I did not have the
I staggered to the opposite wall and slid down, my back
pressed on the cold brick wall. His cell was here. I had heard hours of
Saeyoung’s tortured screams, and I cried out too. His agonising sounds tore at
my heart, and I wept. I expected for them to come for me, and put me through
pain as well, but they never came.
Somehow that felt worse.
“Saeyoung…” I called feebly, turning towards the wall
slowly. There was an immediate response.
“(Y/n)… (Y/n)! Are you okay?” Saeyoung called back, and I
could hear his voice edging on the brink of insanity.
I pressed my palms on the wall. “I’m all okay. But, they’re
hurting you. I feel so helpless Saeyoung…” My voice broke off and I felt
myself start to cry again. I felt Saeyoung slam his hands on the wall.
“(Y/n), I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I should never
have met you,” He started, and I interrupted him.
“I don’t care. If I had never met you, my life wouldn’t have
been worth living in the first place,” I spoke slowly, and he stayed silent. He
let out an exasperated laugh and I smiled. Through all this chaos, we were
still together. Having each other’s company was a blessing.
“I want to see you, (Y/n)…” Saeyoung said softly. “I do
too.” I replied.
We were trapped in this hopeless situation, and I wondered
whether or not I would be able to see the outside world ever again.
An unfamiliar man entered my cell, and I squinted at the
sudden light. He wasn’t holding food, so I did not know why he was here.
“Hello there pretty,” He said, and knelt down to my level.
His fingers trailed to my chin and I jerked away. He laughed and hoisted me up
to my feet. I yelled out.
“(Y/n)! What are you doing to her!” Saeyoung screamed. I
heard the sound of his door creaking open, and the sound of a struggle ensuing.
I was terrified.
The man took me out of the cell I had been in and closed the
door behind us.
“The boss is finally back from his trip, and he would be
delighted to see you.”
Anna May Wong’s parents were second-generation Chinese Americans; her maternal and paternal grandparents had resided in the U.S. since at least 1855.
At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea (1922). The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”
Despite such reviews, Hollywood proved reluctant to create starring roles for Wong; her ethnicity prevented U.S. filmmakers from seeing her as a leading lady.
Conscious that Americans viewed her as “foreign born” even though she was born and raised in California, Wong began cultivating a flapper image.
It soon became evident that Wong’s career would continue to be limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race, even if the character was Asian, but being portrayed by a white actor. The only leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era was Sessue Hayakawa. Unless Asian leading men could be found, Wong could not be a leading lady.
Tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe.
She returned to the U.S. in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM’s film version of The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book and as early as 1933, Los Angeles newspapers were touting Wong as the best choice for the part. Nevertheless, the studio apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan’s husband, Wang Lung.
According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family’s oldest son. Wong refused the role, telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” The role Wong hoped for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. MGM’s refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as “one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s”
Anna May Wong was an American actress. She is considered to be the first Chinese American movie star, and also the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Her long and varied career spanned silent film, sound film, television, stage and radio.
Born in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, she acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color and Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Wong became a fashion icon and had achieved international stardom in 1924. Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920’s, where she starred in several notable plays and films, among them Piccadilly (1929). She spent the first half of the 1930’s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. Wong was featured in films of the early sound era, such as Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932).
In 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to consider her for the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, choosing instead the German actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role. Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family’s ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese Americans in a positive light. She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances.
In 1951, Ms. Wong made history with her TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American series lead.
She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961, at the age of 56.
For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical “Dragon Lady” and demure “Butterfly” roles that she was often given. Her life and career were re-evaluated in the years around the centennial of her birth, in three major literary works and film retrospectives. Interest in her life story continues and another biography, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, was published in 2009.